Croatian Radical Separatism and Diaspora Terrorism: Q&A with Mate Nikola Tokić

We talked to Mate Nikola Tokić, the author of Croatian Radical Separatism and Diaspora Terrorism During the Cold War.

Croatian Radical Separatism and Diaspora Terrorism During the Cold War examines one of the most active but least remembered groups of terrorists of the Cold War: radical anti-Yugoslav Croatian separatists. At its core, this book is concerned with the discourses and practices of radicalization—the ways in which both individuals and groups who engage in terrorism construct a particular image of the world to justify their actions.


Q: What is the goal of your book? What motivated you to write it?

Mate Nikola Tokić: Like many projects, my initial interest in exploring the history found in Croatian Radical Separatism and Diaspora Terrorism During the Cold War actually arose from something of a chance encounter. During archival research for my doctoral dissertation, I happened upon a quote from socialist Yugoslavia’s leader Josip Broz Tito where he stated that Croatian terrorism posed an existential threat to the country. The document I was reading had nothing to do with the subject, and the quote was actually a throw-away line, made to emphasize a quite different point. Nevertheless, I was struck by the observation. I had long been aware of the terror campaign Croat emigrants waged against socialist Yugoslavia during the Cold War, but had always seen the violence as more or less insignificant and little more than a nuisance to the Yugoslav regime. The comment by Tito, however, suggested a more complex story. Once I completed my doctoral thesis, I had the opportunity to follow up on the reference, and soon discovered an intricate and fascinating history that had hitherto been neglected in historiography. And the deeper I dug, the more intricate and fascinating the history became. First and foremost, my motivation for writing the book was bringing this history and its many entanglements to light.


Q: Why do you think this part of history was relatively overlooked?

Tokić: In many ways, it remains a surprise to me that this history has thus far been mostly ignored in academia.  But I think there are some clear reasons for this.  In terms of Yugoslav historiography, clearly the focus for many years has been on the country’s violent break-up.  Scholars have had to struggle with contending why a country that so long was touted as a success story ultimately collapsed so acrimoniously.   As interesting as the story I explore is, it is understandable that historians and others would focus on the causes and context of arguably Europe’s worst tragedy since World War II.  In terms of the history of political violence and terrorism, in part the issue relates to the degree to which radical Croatian separatists were able to keep their cause in the spotlight.  In short, they were unable to, or at least not to the degree better remembered groups of the era such as the RAF, Brigate Rosse, PLO, or ETA did.  For numerous reasons, Croatian separatists rarely landed on the front page of newspapers the world over despite having been as active or even more so than these other groups.  Over time, this has led them to fall into relative obscurity.


Picture of the book Croatian Radical Separatism and Diaspora Terrorism During the Cold War


Q: You start the introduction of the book by acknowledging that many would like us to believe our current “age of terror” is unprecedented. How could your book help us understand modern terror more?

Tokić: In many ways, my desire to challenge prevailing claims about the unprecedented nature of contemporary terrorism has less to do with furthering our understanding of political violence itself and more to do with understanding how political violence and terrorism have been politicized in current politics and society. From its very inception, modern terrorism has been as much about labels and symbolic politics as it has been about social, political, economic, and cultural change. The rather hackneyed phrase “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”—to give just the most obvious example—puts this into sharp relief. A striking feature of both state and media responses to contemporary terrorism has been how ahistoricized their treatment of the phenomenon has been. The result of this, in my view, has been that our understanding of the genesis and aim of terrorism as political act in contemporary world politics lacks sufficient context. The point of the book is less that we learn from the past in order not to repeat it (to paraphrase George Santayana’s famous quote) and more simply to help create a more complete framework for how to think about pressing issues of the day, in this case the relationship between migration and radicalization. Despite its rather narrow empirical focus, ultimately the aim of the book is to provide new insights and perspectives on how to think about the link between population flows and political violence. From this, we can not only understand modern terrorism better, but more critically reflect upon how best to respond to that terrorism.


Q: Where there any particularly surprising or interesting things you found when researching?

Tokić: I’m not sure that I would say that it was particularly surprising, but one thing that definitely struck me was how little the state security services of various countries either knew about or understood radical Croatian separatist groups.  There is, I believe, a general belief that intelligence agencies are generally efficient and effective, if not in fact omniscient.  This notion has developed through both popular culture and state efforts to propagate the idea that their security services are resourceful and competent.  From what I was able to see of classified and top-secret documents (which of course was limited) it is clear that not only did the intelligence agencies have little idea about the organization and activities of radical groups, what they did know they often misunderstood.  This is not to say, of course, that security services were completely ignorant or blind to the threat posed by extremist organizations in their countries.  Rather, like any governmental bureaucracy or agency they were hampered by a variety of ideological, partisan, financial, administrative, and even managerial limitations and shortcomings.  The end result was an understanding of radical groups that was often at best imperfect, if not outright distorted.


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